Doubling down on a bad deal

George Weigel

Perseverance on a difficult but noble path is a virtue. Stubbornness when confronted by irrefutable evidence of a grave mistake is a vice. The latter would seem an apt characterization of a letter sent on Ash Wednesday to the entire College of Cardinals by its new Dean, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. In that letter — his first official act as Dean — Cardinal Re reprimands the redoubtable Cardinal Joseph Zen, SDB, emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, for his criticisms of the agreement the Vatican made with the People’s Republic of China in 2018.

The bloom is off the Chinese rose just about everywhere in the world. So it is more than disturbing that the Holy See should be doubling down on what everyone (except those directly involved in cutting it) thinks is a very bad deal: bad, because it allows the Chinese Communist Party to nominate candidates for bishop, which the Holy See can then approve or reject.

Why is the bloom off the Chinese rose? Why are China and its “model” no longer lauded in the global commentariat? The initial Chinese mishandling (and worse) of COVID-19, the coronavirus, has had an impact. Before anyone had heard of COVID-19, however, there was mounting concern about the intentions and brutality of the Chinese communist regime: about its herding Uighurs into concentration camps; about its assaults on religious communities, including the defacing and demolition of Catholic churches after the accord with the Holy See was signed; about its aggressive military moves in the South China Sea; about its creation of an Orwellian internal security apparatus through facial-recognition technology; about its ranking the Chinese citizenry according to their political reliability (meaning their acquiescence to what the Chinese Communist Party dictates); about its international espionage, often conducted behind the cover of putatively independent technology companies like Huawei; about its relentless digital attacks on Taiwan; and about the global Chinese “Belt-and-Road” initiative, which financially shackles Third World countries to the Beijing regime.

Yet nary a public word has been spoken by Vatican diplomacy about any of this.

What is most disturbing about Cardinal Re’s letter, however, is its claim that the 2018 Vatican-China agreement is in continuity with the diplomacy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. To my understanding, that is simply not right — or at best, it’s a distortion of the historical record in service to defending what can’t be defended on the merits.

Yes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI sought ways to unite the Church in China. But neither was prepared to do so at the expense of the Church’s right to order its internal life by Catholic criteria. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI could have had a deal in which the Chinese government would propose candidates for bishop, which the Vatican would then accept or veto. Both popes declined to accept any such arrangement, not only because it contradicted the teaching of Vatican II in its Decree on the Pastoral Office of the Bishops in the Church and Canon 377.5 of the Code of Canon Law, but because they knew that that concession would weaken the Church’s evangelical mission in China. The deal Cardinal Re defends is not in a line of continuity with the policy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI: it is an even worse deal than the deal those popes would not make. For it concedes nominating power to the Chinese Community Party, which manages religious affairs in China, not the Chinese government. And that is, in a word, intolerable.

Cardinal Re’s defense of the indefensible is a last gasp of the old Vatican Ostpolitik, the failed policy of making concessions to totalitarian regimes that did much damage to the Church in east central Europe during the 1970s. Italian Vatican diplomats still defend that policy, claiming absurdly that it set the table for the Revolution of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But what did the Ostpolitik actually accomplish? It made the Hungarian hierarchy a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Hungarian Communist Party, gutting the Church’s evangelical credibility in the process. It demoralized Catholicism in what was then Czechoslovakia. It put unnecessary pressure on the Church in Poland. And it facilitated the deep penetration of the Vatican by communist secret intelligence services.

Cardinal Re’s letter laments that the path forward for the Catholic Church in China is difficult and complex. Who could doubt it? That path is not made easier, however, by making unbecoming concessions to thugs — or by calling out fellow-cardinals who challenge the 2018 Vatican-China deal because it does precisely that.

COMING UP: The clerisy of the concrete-and-glass box freaks out

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Several years back, the estimable Father Paul Scalia observed, of some cultural idiocy or other, “Who knew the end of civilization would be so amusing?”

I detected a subtle theological point within that mordant comment: a point worth reflecting upon during Lent.  Christians are the people who know how history is going to turn out — God is, finally, going to get what God intended from the beginning, which is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem. (The trailer, so to speak, is in Revelation 21.) So Christians can afford to relax a bit about the vicissitudes and traumas of history. To be sure, faith that God’s purposes in creation and redemption will ultimately be vindicated ought not lead to insouciance about here-and-now; we have responsibilities within history and we should take them seriously. But faith in the triumph of the Kingdom for which we pray daily should invite us to “chill” (as the kids used to say).

That’s what I did during a recent skirmish in the American culture wars, which erupted a few weeks back over a leaked memo suggesting that President Trump would issue an Executive Order creating a preference that federal courthouses and other federal buildings be designed in a classical style. There isn’t much to laugh at along the Potomac these days. But the freak-out from the high priests and priestesses of the concrete-and-glass box — the modernist architectural establishment and its acolytes in the mainstream media — was (as I think the kids still say, at least in text messages), “LOL.”

The ever-more-ludicrous New York Times, in high editorial dudgeon, asked why the republic should be festooned with more “fake Roman temples” — as if the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, and similar architectural masterpieces were a blight on the national aesthetic. Does the high priesthood of architectural modernism really want to defend such grotesqueries as the Robert H. Weaver Federal Building (headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development), aptly described by a government worker as “ten floors of basement”? Or the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, another concrete-and-glass eyesore that (as my friend Andrew Ferguson wrote) “is even more obnoxious than its namesake”? Or the Hirshhorn Museum, a concrete Bundt cake squatting on the National Mall?

Alas, these horrors are precisely what the modernist architectural establishment wants to defend, and continues to defend with some success: most recently, in ramming through the Frank Gehry design of the Eisenhower Memorial in the nation’s capital, a gargantuan nonsense better suited to the Berlin imagined by Albert Speer after the triumph of the Third Reich.

The idea of Donald Trump as a promoter of architectural classicism is not without its ironies, of course, given the designs of his own buildings. But as the good folks south of the Mason-Dixon Line have been known to observe, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then.” And in the current madhouse of American national politics, one takes with gratitude any signs of sanity one can get.

Modernist architectural fanaticism is not about aesthetics only. As critics like Tom Wolfe (From Bauhaus to Our House) and John Silber (Architecture of the Absurd) have  demonstrated, the International Style, Brutalism, and the rest of the modernist canon embody a worldview and an anthropology — an idea of the human person. The worldview is resolutely secular and lacks any sense of transcendence. The anthropology is similar: human beings are cogs in various machines, economic or political, and cogs need neither beauty nor uplift nor charm, only surroundings defined by the ultimate value of efficiency. (That a lot of modernist buildings don’t work, rapidly decay, and require enormous sums to maintain compounds the problem even while underscoring the point: dumbing down the human has its costs, including its financial costs.)

The modernist curse afflicted Catholic church architecture in the U.S. for a while, but that unhappy period is now passing. Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist-inspired abbey church at St. John’s in Minnesota was often considered the most important U.S. Catholic building of the mid-20th century. Compare it to Duncan Stroik’s chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in California, which I’d suggest is the most important U.S. Catholic building yet erected in the 21st century. Stroik, not Breuer, is the future, because the TAC chapel’s classicism and decorative beauty call us out of ourselves and into the Kingdom; the Breuer church depresses the spirit.

Back to the future, then, in both civic and ecclesiastical architecture.